Birds are one of the most successful vertebrate life forms on the planet. Scientists estimate that there are between ten and eighteen thousand living species and a staggering 50-430 billion individuals occupying every continent, as well as the skies above and oceans between them!
With such a high degree of diversity and success, it's strange that we tend to perceive birds as unintelligent creatures.
Ornithologists and even bird keepers have long recognized the intelligence of birds. Observation of birds using intelligence in the wild and scientific experiments designed to test their limits under controlled conditions have revealed just how smart birds are. Calling someone a bird-brain might not be such an insult after all.
Intelligence is a pretty tricky concept to define, but it can be agreed that it involves awareness, and the ability to learn. The ability to use that awareness and knowledge to plan and solve problems is clearly demonstrated in many birds, and the capability of some species can come as a big surprise!
This article explores the intelligence of birds. Read along with us, it just might change the way you see our feathered friends.
Crows are amongst the smartest species of birds
Birds are not as smart as the average adult human, but research has shown that they can out-perform human children at certain mental tasks. Crows, for example, have been said to be as smart as seven-year-old children while African grey parrots can be more intelligent than toddlers. In fact, birds could be the most intelligent beings on the planet, after ourselves.
Bird brains may be small, but that doesn’t mean our feathered friends aren’t smart. In fact, bird brains contain a similar number of neurons to mammal brains, just at a much higher density per volume. The ratio of brain size to body size is also thought to be more important than absolute brain size. Corvids have a larger brain to body size than most mammals, even approaching that of primates.
The bird brain is arranged a little differently from our own, which led early scientists to make a few mistakes when piecing together the way they evolved.
Taking a closer look at the bird brain reveals a large forebrain, the region responsible for interpreting sensory data. A well-developed hippocampus allows them to store this information as memory.
The smartest birds tend to be social species that are able to communicate and learn from others. Birds have the potential to live many years and even decades in some cases.A long lifespan coupled with a powerful brain and ability to learn and collect information makes some birds very smart indeed!
Continue reading to learn more about the brightest (and dimmest) birds in the world.
Corvids have a larger brain to body size than most mammals
The most intelligent bird is probably the New Caledonian crow (Corvus moneduloides). These remarkable birds have demonstrated the ability to create and use tools in a number of ways, both in the wild and in experimental tasks.
New Caledonian crows are able to construct different tools for different jobs and even attach two or more components to create compound tools. They have the ability to plan ahead too. These clever crows have been shown to choose a tool for future use to access a large food source rather than the immediate gratification of a small treat.
New Caledonian crows aren’t the only intelligent birds, however. Keep reading to learn more about the world’s smartest birds.
The most intelligent bird is probably the New Caledonian crow
The corvid family in general is known for their high-level intelligence. This family includes well-known birds like crows, ravens, magpies, and jays.
Crows in particular have been observed to learn which people are friends, and which are foes. They hold grudges too, and have excellent memories!
No discussion on intelligent birds would be complete without mentioning the psittacines. Not all birds in the parrot family show high intelligence, but well-known species like the African gray parrot rank as some of the world’s smartest birds.
Parrots aren’t only superb mimics, they have been demonstrated to identify shapes and volumes, and even count. Their intelligence has been compared with that of a 4-year-old child.
Intelligent birds show up in many different forms, however. Some other notable bird brains include:
African gray parrots are one of the worlds smartest birds
We tend to focus on giving praise to the smartest birds, but not much is said about those species on the other end of the intelligence scale. We don’t know for sure, but many suspect the emu to be the least intelligent birds in the world. Other contenders for this inglorious title include ostriches, quails, turkeys, and bustards.
Emus are considered to be one of the least intelligent bird species
The brain size of birds varies widely depending on their species. The award for the largest brain in the bird world goes to the emperor penguin of Antarctica. Their brains have a respectable mass of 44g.
There is some correlation between brain size and intelligence, but it remains a controversial assumption. Research has shown that birds can pack just as many neurons as some monkeys, just in a much smaller package.
Hummingbirds are tiny birds so it makes sense that they have correspondingly small brains that can weigh as little as 0.167g. While this might sound small, hummingbird brains are actually very large in proportion to their bodies.
In fact, researchers have found that the hummingbird brain is about two and a half times bigger than that of galliform (chickenlike) birds relative to their body size.
Emperor Penguins have the largest of bird brains
Many bird species have excellent memory. Birds like jays and nuthatches are well known for their habit of storing food. This behavior is known as caching and it allows birds to store food for later in the day or even year. These birds need to remember where they have stored this food and that's where a good memory really comes in handy.
Fortunately, birds have a well-developed hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for spatial memory.
The tufted titmouse is an American songbird with an incredible power of memory. These tiny birds are able to remember the locations of thousands of stored food sources.
Researchers studying this species concluded that the mechanisms responsible for their memory were similar to those of mammals and that other birds have varying abilities for memory depending on the behaviors typical of their species.
In other words, birds that do not need to remember the locations of stored food won't have the same memory power as birds that do.
Close up of a perched Tufted Titmouse
Bird memory does not only extend to hidden food sources, however. Crows are able to remember faces too. They can remember the face of humans that have helped them, as well as those that have done them harm.
This was demonstrated in an experiment where researchers wearing masks trapped crows and then released them. The crows remembered the masked ‘villains’ well and actively avoided them.
The most fascinating part of this study is that crows in that study area passed the warning on to their offspring so that the mask is still feared generations after the original birds had died!
Close up of an American Crow
The smartest birds like crows and some parrots are probably smarter than dogs. It really depends on the criteria you use to compare the two, of course.
Birds certainly can count. Pigeons, parrots, robins, and other birds have all demonstrated this ability. Scientific experiments from as early as the mid-1900s have shown that birds are able to count both objects and events.
Many bird species, including parrots, crows, and even starlings are capable of vocalizing human words with remarkable accuracy and clarity. This behavior is mimicry rather than language and the birds generally do not grasp the meanings of the sounds they are making. Birds can make associations between words and objects if they are trained, however.
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